Completed -3/1/2018. Again, it took about 3 hours.
I tried to write a spoiler free blog for this and it was like 4 sentences long. That’s barely a paragraph and to be honest this game deserves more because it’s done something to me that I don’t like video games doing. It’s made me think.
So if you have not played this game stop reading this blog now. Seriously, please just stop. I’m not going to tell you to go and download the game IMMEDIATELY, because it absolutely won’t be for everyone, but it IS free and on Steam, it can run on a calculator, it takes between 3-5 hours to finish and in all honesty, even after the curveball of Pony Island, it’s pretty unique as video games go. Fair warning given.
Visual novels are something I don’t usually give any time of day as they don’t engage me in the slightest. From my (admittedly limited) knowledge of them they tend to encompass all the god-awful tropes about anime that I absolutely hate; stereotypes and archetypes so flogged to death there’s no meat left on the bones, twists you can see coming a mile off or that are so obtuse you have no idea where it came from, and either convoluted puzzle mechanics or puzzles so simple you just click dialogue trees until you’re bored.
Dating sims I avoid for similar reasons; girls with massive eyes, lewd comments about boobs, an empty vessel of a protagonist who you’re supposed to pour yourself into to try and navigate social engagements that you normally would completely avoid in real life while ‘picking’ a suitable person to date like it’s some kind of fucking vending machine with dialogue trees.
Or so I understand.
I only played Doki Doki Literature Club (or DDLC for short because fuck typing all that nonsense) because a friend recommended it (we’ll call him ‘Jonny’. Because that’s his name). He normally wouldn’t recommend this kind of weeb nonsense as he’s well aware of my predisposition of telling him to fuck off and not recommend such bollocks to me, so there must have been some kind of subversion of the norm or a twist of M Night Shyamalan proportions for him to do so. The only caveats were “Get through the first hour of the game so you’re up to the weekend.” and “Don’t Google it or read any spoilers about it.”
So with some trepidation I installed and loaded it and was immediately assaulted by all the things I hate about anime and visual novels. Standard.
You play a protagonist of your naming, who has a female friend you’ve known since you were little, Sayori. She’s a ditz; all calamity, chirpiness and optimism and you’re practically an empty vessel who likes anime. You never have an avatar, you see the back your own head once and that’s it. This is incredibly important to how the game grabs you by the bollocks and squeezes them until you are on your knees, because it wants YOU to be responsible for all that happens, despite you never really being in control and your decisions making fuck all difference to the outcome of anything.
At school you’re harassed by Sayori to join an after school club, more specifically her Literature Club. She’s vice president, and they need more members. She endearingly pesters you until you acquiesce and off you scoot to the club where you meet 3 improbably (yet stereotypically) cute girls. There’s the President, Monika, and the other two members, Natsuki and Yuri.
All three are dating game/anime typecast characters; Monika is the seemingly popular go-getter beautiful type, Natsuki is the diminutively bratty yet feisty type and Yuri is the tall and shy but seemingly lagoon-deep type.
The first hour or so of the game is taken up over the first week of Literature Club. You have conversations with the other members and each night you’re given the task of writing a poem to share at the next days club. This is presented as a notebook with chibi versions of Sayori, Natsuki and Yuri and a page of seemingly innocuous words.
Words like ‘waterfall’, ‘charm’ and ‘peaceful’. Also ‘wrath’, ‘misery’ and ‘scars’. This is where the alarm bells started ringing.
Because DDLC is actually a psychological horror game masquerading as a visual novel dating simulator and I hate Jonny for convincing me to play it. The complete and utter bastard.
The game does an incredible job of making you care about the cast in a ridiculously short time frame which isn’t apparent until you get to the weekend and Sayori is acting funny and out of character from her airheaded, overly optimistic and borderline childlike self. She’s withdrawn and downcast and over the weekend confesses to you that the reason she’s so chirpy and ‘up’ all the time is because she’s uses that personality to mask the severe depression and subsequent lack of self worth she’s suffered with for most of her life.
I didn’t expect this. Out of all the possible outcomes of the ‘twist’ I was expecting, I didn’t expect the confession of an avatar in a supposed dating sim visual novel to affect me as much as this did. Sayori was a delightful character who, by all rights, I shouldn’t have given a flying fuck about but the way she (and ultimately the others) had been set up in such a short space of time made this horrible. Turns out this was just the beginning of the ‘twist’.
There were other clues before this. The poems your Club members share with you seem abstract at first but you’d have to be a complete dullard to not notice some underlying subtexts, like Sayori’s poem about keeping happy thoughts in jars for all to see. And, y’know, the one about getting out of her head. Subtle that was not.
The game then falls back into its flirtatious, light-hearted nature when you group up with Natsuki or Yuri (depending who you decided to help out for the Club Festival preparations) albeit with some more underlying insinuations that both members are having problems of a family or psychological nature, until Sayori stumbles upon you about to have an intimate moment with your chosen weekend buddy, whereupon they scarper and Sayori confesses her long seated love for you and also that she doesn’t deserve you so she’s probably ruined everything and so on and so forth.
It then presents you with a response option. Tell Sayori she is your dearest friend and she always will be, or say you love her too. I went with the love option, because I was terrified what would happen if I just stuck her in the ‘friend zone’.
I genuinely panicked when given the option. I didn’t want Sayori to be unhappy, and the way the conversations the previous week had been going she and your avatar had been establishing a lost connection, building on years of friendship and it was coming to a blossoming romance! Or so I thought anyway.
On Monday Sayori killed herself. She hanged herself in her room.
I was absolutely fucking distraught.
Jonny really is a complete and utter fucking bastard.
And this is where the game gets completely off its tits. Because upon finding Sayori dead the game glitches out and crashes back to the menu screen, but only after showing you the path of a .txt file that you can find in the game install folder, but I never checked because I WAS TOO FUCKING UPSET THAT SAYORI HAD FUCKING KILLED HERSELF.
So I went to load one of the many saves I had. I’d got a lot of saves because the class president, Monika, excellently broke the fourth wall and told me to save often, although she couldn’t tell me what she meant and dismissed it out of hand. I found all my saves had been deleted.
You start a New Game and all seems the same except Sayori’s text and avatar is corrupted beyond recognition and suddenly the game crashes out again. When you get back in there’s no Sayori, no reference to Sayori and all notions that she ever existed have gone. Instead Monika is the one that invites you to the Literature Club.
So DDLC is a meta psychological horror masquerading as a visual novel dating simulator and I despise Jonny for convincing me to play it. The utter, utter wanker.
It’s now the game starts ‘breaking’ in various ways, like the text becomes gobbledigook, or the music will rise or drop off key, sounding sinister as shit. Avatars corrupt and the UI becomes obscured. From a plot point, the week begins anew with the same structure as before but without Sayori being the chirpy voice of reason and balance, the other characters start becoming unhinged.
Still being under the illusion that I was in control of the game and who I was going to ‘date’ I started concentrating on the words that would get Yuri onside, because I genuinely did not have a clue where this bloody game was going to end up, so I thought I’d try and maintain the original premise of dating someone before it got weird.
It then got weirder.
It turns out Yuri likes knives. She has a collection, did you know? I fucking didn’t. I WISH I didn’t. Over the week her poems become more and more, well, fucking terrifying (I particularly enjoyed the illegible one presented to me on bloodstained paper) and you even catch her in an act of self harm where she’s cutting up her forearms.
She also becomes obsessed with you, up to the point where Natsuki passes you a letter disguised as a poem she’s supposed to be sharing saying that she’s incredibly worried about Yuri and that we need to get Monika to intervene. This letter is another incredible curve ball in a game where the curveballs are basically bowling balls launched at your head and/or crotch. It’s such a genuine human moment of concern when the rest of the game is literally breaking down and going belly up.
Then it’s Friday and you have to choose who to buddy up with (again) to prepare for the Festival. The game presents you with no option but to buddy up with Monika (those alarm bells that have steadily been getting louder suddenly turn to air-raid sirens) but before that Yuri shoos her and Natsuki out of the room because she has something to say to you.
Yuri then confesses her love for you in a rambling, borderline psychotic monologue and asks you if you accept her confession. Yes? Or No? I think I said No. I can’t exactly remember, but even if I said Yes the outcome would have been the same.
Yuri kills herself. She stabs herself in the stomach repeatedly with the knife she’s been self harming with.
Jonny really, REALLY is a complete and utter fucking shitbag bastard.
While not having the impact that Sayoris suicide did, this was still bloody awful, especially seeing as you then effectively spend the entire weekend in school with her lifeless corpse talking at you. Or maybe it’s supposed to represent your mind being unable to comprehend this traumatic event. Christ only knows.
Monday rolls back around, Natsuki arrives and promptly throws up at the scene, and then Monika walks in, declares she’s sorry and promptly deletes Yuri and Natsuki from the game.
At this point I shouldn’t be surprised, but here we are. The game then loads back up with Monkia not so much as breaking the fourth wall as flat out knocking it down with a wrecking ball and explaining to you how she’s aware she’s in a video game, she’s deleted the other characters because her plan of amplifying Sayoris depression and Yuris obsessive nature didn’t work so she’s flat out telling you she loves you. Not your avatar. YOU.
I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore Toto, but now we weren’t even on the Yellow Brick Road. She called me ‘stevel’ instead of ‘steve’ (for some reason I didn’t hold down the shift button and that bothered me all the way through the game) which she must have dredged up from my Steam profile somewhere, and even told me how she did it by pointing out where the Character folder was, which now only contained the Monika file.
So I deleted it. And broke the game. Which was exactly what the game wanted me to do. This was genius. Absolute brilliance. Honestly, I thought Pony Island was good at fucking with you and the nature of ‘what a game is’ but actively going into the Steam folder, deleting a file and it affecting the game WHILE YOU’RE PLAYING IT is something else. Absolutely effing marvelous.
So the game then starts AGAIN, this time sans Monika, has Sayori as club president and everything seems well. That is until Sayori reveals she know exactly what Monika did and that she’ll finally be happy forever and ever and ever and that’s where upon the game breaks a final time. Monika actually speaks up and you get the standard ending and a song. As the song plays the game effectively uninstalls itself until you are left with an error message and if you want to play again you have to reinstall it and start again.
This game was a rollercoaster. I was chatting to He That Is Known As Bastard Jonny and another friend about it while I was playing it as it’s relatively short and they’d both finished it and while they picked up on other things I didn’t (the .txt file, and Yuri’s self harm as it’s not apparent unless you’re with her for the weekend) we all came to the conclusion that any decision you make in the game doesn’t make a lick of difference to the outcome. What’s worse, if you go in with the knowledge that Monika is the game breaker and you delete her from the off, Sayori is Club president to start but she can’t deal with the pressure and kills herself anyway!
At the beginning of this reviewsplanation blog (because I can’t actually think of what else to call 2600+ words of telling you what happens interspersed with me going WHAT THE LIVING PISS IS THIS) I said the game made me think and, at the risk of sounding like a low brow, knuckledragging and generally backward thinking shit kicker I don’t play video games to be provoked into thought. I’m sorry. I really am. Spec Ops the Line did something similar, and while Pony Island wasn’t the complete gut punch-fest DDLC was still had some excellent talking points on meta gaming commentary, but this fucking thing made me fucking care and then decided to kick me in the fucking nuts.
Maybe that’s more likely, that it’s not that I don’t want games to make me think, more that I prefer games where I don’t HAVE to think because gaming for me is wish fulfilment and escapism, which is why I generally prefer to hit things first and ask questions later when I’m playing. Maybe I’m just more comfortable with my head in the sand.
DDLC doesn’t deal with the issues in a grander scheme but does use them in a way that doesn’t feel crude or vulgar to subvert tropes in very well trodden genres. The meta game breaking is used in similar effect to that as in Pony Island; it’s very self aware and used to unsettle and skew the players feeling of control.
There are more endings and things to find in the game but I don’t think I’ll go back to it. I might YouTube the other endings and routes. I don’t even know if I enjoyed it. I don’t tend to enjoy horror these days, but I am glad I played it.